Open City: Blogging Urban Change
Destination Cupcakes in Chinatown (Guest post by Karen Hu)
By Jerome Chou

 

This piece is brought to you by guest blogger Karen Hu, an urban planner living in NYC.

photo by Tom Giebel

On Mosco Street, one of the shortest streets in New York City, past a rolled-down storefront and up a flight of stairs, is Everything Frosted, a bakery founded by John Wu, a chef trained in the French style of pastry making, his wife Terry, and his older brother Danny.

When John tells people his family’s shop is on Mosco Street, they often draw a blank, until they remember it’s where the egg cake lady used to sell $1 waffle cakes out of a bright red shack. But John insists the semi-secret Chinatown location suits him and his family. They like their landlord. There’s a skylight over the kitchen. They’re removed from the hubbub of the main Chinatown streets. John and Terri both grew up here and still live nearby, which makes it easier for John to work 14-hour days. He has many relatives in the neighborhood whose apartments double as storage rooms: flour at an aunt’s or extra cupcake boxes at Terri’s grandmother’s.

John admits a start-up selling $2.50 cupcakes in the heart of Chinatown might seem unusual, especially when a dumpling place across the street is selling 5 dumplings for $1. “Chinese people are very traditional,” he says. “They’ve been having their buns and their milk tea the same way for as long as they can remember.” He recalls a young elementary school student who dragged her grandmother into the store, only to have the grandmother exclaim that the price was too expensive and then stalk out.

John’s brother Danny estimates that 70% of their customers are non-Chinatown residents–tourists, foodies who fetishize the newest flavors, workers from the financial and court districts who walk up Mosco on summer days to get to Mott Street for lunch. Both John and his wife Terri, who used to work in public relations, have tapped their networks to spread the word. Customers have come from as far away as Seattle, Los Angeles, Kansas City, and Canada. “We’ve had one couple come in and tell us that they just got off the plane and came straight here,” John says.

“I remember Chinatown being much busier when we were growing up,” John says. “Walking down Mott Street, you had to walk in the street, because there was no room on the sidewalk.  But now Chinatown is dying.” John gazes outside the window. “It’s really hard to do business because the rents have gotten so high. New businesses have to work really hard to attract as many customers as possible to make the rent. When your focus is on attracting customers, it’s hard to focus on the quality of your products.”

John didn’t start his business with the idea of becoming a cupcake destination.  He honed his craft for 5 years under the tutelage of John Yosses, now the Executive Pastry Chef of the White House. When Everything Frosted opened in February 2010, John made 2,000 truffles and handed them out to friends, family and passersby. Even now, he spends most of his time thinking about everything but cupcakes. “The idea is that people will come, try a cupcake and then come back and order a special occasion cake.” He prides himself on the quality and the flavors of his cakes and his willingness to work with his customers. “That’s the key to starting a new business, especially in Chinatown.”

As for the future? John would like to keep the Mosco Street location as a base and open another location on Ludlow Street, where his family moved when he was a teenager. “That neighborhood used to be run by drugs. But now, that’s where people go to go out. We’ll cater to the nightlife.” One cupcake at a time.

- Karen Hu

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Open City: Blogging Urban Change is an interdisciplinary neighborhood blog and community project coordinated by the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. Five commissioned writers, called Organizing Fellows, are working with community organizations and neighborhood folks in Manhattan’s Chinatown/Lower East Side (LES), Flushing, Queens, and Sunset Park, Brooklyn to collect oral histories and interviews, offer commentary about gentrification, neighborhood change, and produce new creative work around these themes. Read more.
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They have two offices – one in Manhattan’s Chinatown (which houses the Chinatown Tenants Union, and the new Asian Youth in Action organizing project) and the Youth Leadership Project office in the Bronx – and have members from all over the city. Over the years, CAAAV’s main campaigns have focused on community-based organizing work rooted in Asian immigrant and refugee communities. Although their advocacy and organizing work is focused mainly in Manhattan’s Chinatown and the northwest Bronx, CAAAV’s work also touches upon larger issues (such as affordable housing, war, and immigration) shaping communities all over the world: “Our work is primarily centered around issues facing New Yorkers, but always with a global analysis.”
CAAAV’s mission is to organize and build the power of working-class Asian immigrants, refugees, and youth to change concrete conditions and participate in a broader social justice movement. In the past, CAAAV’s work included organizing South Asian taxi drivers, Korean women workers, and Filipina domestic workers. Several of these organizing projects have gone on to become their own organizations, such as the New York Taxi Workers Alliance and Domestic Workers United. CAAAV’s current work focus on three different program areas: Read more.

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